During a math class at Moscow City University of Psychology and Education, three students sit around a computer. One of them, Maria Nikitina, who is visually impaired, moves her face almost to the surface of the screen to see it. Her two fellow students sit in their chairs, comfortably viewing the monitor.
The class is part of a new government effort in Russia to integrate people with physical disabilities into higher education. After decades of segregation and being relegated to a second-class education, Russians with a variety of physical impairments are gaining access to the country's universities and taking classes alongside nondisabled students.
The Russian Ministry of Education has decided to open up dozens of new centers at existing public and private universities around the country to help them integrate students with disabilities. It is asking the country's eight federal districts which universities are able to participate and have the infrastructure in place, like wheelchair-accessible campuses, to serve disabled students.
The push to help disabled university students is coming from the highest levels of the Kremlin. In June, Russia's prime minister, Vladimir Putin, said each of the districts "should have a university adopted for teaching students with disabilities."
He also said elementary and secondary schools will include children with disabilities and pledged $240-million to pay for the changes.
So far 26,100, or 0.6 percent of Russians with disabilities, are attending a university in Russia, says the ministry. The situation has been improving slowly since 2001, when only 2,000 students with physical impairments were enrolled.
A Change in Approach
Moscow City University of Psychology and Education is focusing on providing classes for people who are blind or have other sight problems. It has purchased audio and Braille textbooks and computers with vocal capabilities to help them.
"Our goal is to make students with disabilities forget about their health problems," says Vladimir Sokolov, a math professor and the head of the university's program for visually impaired students. "We devote our unique technological systems to helping students with limited sight."
Mr. Sokolov, who has been blind since birth, says he feels personally responsible for the 73 students with vision problems who are studying at the university.
Perhaps the university undergoing the biggest change is the Moscow State Social Humanitarian Institute. Historically, it specialized in teaching students who were confined to wheelchairs or with other mobility problems. But five years ago, it changed its name from Moscow Institute for Students With Disabilities—a name many of its students had objected to—and began accepting applicants without physical disabilities. Today it has about 500 disabled students, most with musculoskeletal disorders, and 300 nondisabled, offering a model of how to integrate the two populations.
"We changed the approach," says the institution's rector, Vagib Bairamov. "Healthy students and students with health problems study in the same classrooms, make friends, and help each other."
In the last two years, he says, the campus has celebrated nine weddings between the two groups of undergraduates. The rector proudly shows photographs in the university hallway of these unions.
"It is important that students with health problems adjust to being among healthy people of their age, so in the future, when they come to work, they will not feel themselves like outsiders," he says. "In the case with nondisabled students, it teaches them mercy and tolerance."
This year, the institute admitted 100 students with disabilities and 48 other students to study law, economics, English, Turkish, computer programming, and other topics.
"Those who are determined to read what we write, and hear what we say, will be able to benefit from our devotion and hard work," says Tatyana Goncharuk, a disabled student at Moscow State Social Humanitarian Institute.
Hope for Growth
Because the university is one of the few prepared to serve students with mobility difficulties, it can only accept a few of the hundreds of students who apply. Mr. Bairamov wants to build a new dormitory for 1,000 students, but state budget problems have forced the construction project to be frozen.
However, with the government's push to open more universities to disabled students, Mr. Bairamov hopes to expand his institution and build branch campuses in other parts of the country.
The Moscow Center for Complex Rehabilitation of the Hearing Impaired, part of Bauman Moscow State Technical University, a top Russian science university, has a similar idea of operating regional branches. It has been integrating students on its campus since 1934. Bauman and Moscow State Social Humanitarian Institute were the only higher-education institutions that accepted disabled students during the Soviet era.
Today, 500 hearing-impaired students study in the same classrooms with nondisabled students and receive identical diplomas.
But despite such success and the new plans by the government, Alexander Stanevsky, the center's director, says Russia has a long way go before the disabled population has full access to universities.
"I have no doubt that Russia's integrated higher-education system is a leader among most of the European countries," he says. But "if you ask me whether we still have problems with education for students with disabilities, I will tell you yes, we do—thousands."